Venice: How Do You Do a Film Festival Without (Hollywood) Stars? 

Venice: How Do You Do a Film Festival Without (Hollywood) Stars? 

If a film festival falls in the middle of a strike, will anyone come? What could have been a purely philosophical question has become a stark reality for the 80th Biennale, which, despite the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, is still hoping to pack its red carpet with A-list celebrities.

Several hot-ticket titles in Venice this year, including Michael Mann’s Ferrari starring Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz, and Luc Besson’s Dogman with Caleb Landry Jones, have secured interim agreement waivers from SAG-AFTRA to allow affiliated talent to do promotion and publicity at the festival. And the actors union last week explicitly encouraged its members to promote approved projects, as a way to support the indie industry. Films from the streamers or the studios, so-called “struck productions,” cannot get interim agreement waivers from the unions.

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Waiver or not, however, it remains to be seen if the talent will actually show up. Even with permission from the union, many top stars might opt instead to stand in solidarity with their striking peers and not risk the potential bad optics of posing for selfies on the Lido. “Glamming it up at Venice while your colleagues are on the picket line isn’t a good look,” notes one festival publicist.

Anna Manuelli, the up-and-coming Italian lead in Saverio Costanzo’s competition title Finally Dawn, will be in Venice, but not the film’s better-known Hollywood talent, including Lily James and Willem Dafoe. Robert Lorenz’s Irish action thriller In the Land of Saints and Sinners will have to do without the red carpet draw of lead Liam Neeson.

Privately, many producers and sales agents have also complained that the union waiver system has been applied haphazardly, with no reasons given for why one project received an interim agreement while another was rejected. This has meant that, even as Venice kicks off, the red carpet attendance of a number of top talents is still TBD.

Bradley Cooper, for one, won’t be walking the Venice red carpet this year for the world premiere of his new film, Maestro. Theoretically, Cooper could have gone to the Lido as the film’s director but, given that he also stars as composer Leonard Bernstein in the period drama, he decided to show his support for striking actors by staying home. Maestro is also a Netflix film, and any promotion of a studio- or streamer-backed movie could trigger a SAG-AFTRA backlash.

This could even be the case for Ferrari, which secured its promotional waiver thanks to its U.S. distributor, Neon, an independent, non-AMPTP company. Driver, who plays racing car icon Enzo Ferrari, is expected to attend Venice, as is Cruz, who plays Ferrari’s wife, Laura. But Amazon, a member of AMPTP, will be releasing the biopic in multiple international territories. If the stars promote the movie at the festival, will they be seen as scabs?

For AMPTP-backed titles, Venice will be a starless affair. Yorgos Lanthimos will be doing press in Venice for his competition entry, Poor Things, which Disney’s Searchlight Pictures is releasing in the U.S., but without his A-list cast of Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Margaret Qualley. Instead, Searchlight is offering up below-the-line heads of department for press junkets.

Netflix is taking a similar tack, flying in crafts talent for David Fincher’s The Killer, including Oscar-winning cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as Maestro’s cinematographer Matthew Libatique and costume designer Mark Bridges. “It’s going to be red carpets packed with film editors, make-up artists, and VFX specialists,” notes one independent publicist, adding ironically, “not sure if that will draw the paparazzi.”

It will be up to the true independents, and the international features with big, but non-American, talents to take on the mantle of Venice celebrity glam. Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen should draw the crowds for the premiere of The Promised Land, a Scandinavian period drama. Eurostars Fanny Ardant and Joaquim de Almeida are expected for Roman Polanski’s film The Palace. Hong Kong icon Tony Leung will be in town to receive a lifetime achievement award. Landry Jones and Dogman co-star Jojo T. Gibbs will be doing the Lido circuit, along with director Besson. Not quite the star-studded spectacular Venice had hoped for on its 80th anniversary. But probably enough to keep Lido fans screaming.